Woolwich New Road render
The developers’ plans for Woolwich New Road include keeping historic shops

Plans for 801 homes, shops and a new cinema at Spray Street in Woolwich have been recommended for approval by Greenwich Council officers – even though the levels of “affordable” housing fall way below council policy.

The £400m Woolwich Exchange scheme includes retaining the roof of Woolwich Public Market, which was given a Grade II listing after initial plans included destroying the 1930s structure.

The developer, St Modwen, and the housing association Notting Hill Genesis said they had to cut levels of “affordable” housing to pay the £30 million cost of keeping the distinctive roof. Its German design is more commonly found in military buildings as well as retaining and refurbishing buildings on Woolwich New Road and meeting new energy standards.

The development also includes two towers of 23 storeys, and blocks of 15, 17 and 18 storeys, facing towers of up to 19 and 23 stories in Berkeley Homes’ Royal Arsenal development across Plumstead Road.

Just 19.7 per cent of the homes will be “affordable” – for London Affordable Rent or shared ownership – compared with the 35 per cent originally on offer in the first set of proposals, which caused an outcry because they also included the the mass demolition of shops and workspace mostly belonging to black and ethnic minority businesses.

Woolwich Exchange render
An overview of the new development. The faded blocks in the background are part of Berkeley Homes’ Royal Arsenal (See more detail)

Council policy is that 35 per cent of homes on private land should be “affordable”, and 50 per cent on publicly-owned land. Greenwich Council owns the covered market, which makes up 9 per cent of the site, meaning that the proportion should be 36 per cent.

The proposals will still mean the loss of 24 existing homes as well as buildings on Plumstead Road, while the 145 businesses on the site face being relocated – with containers or kiosks on Beresford Square suggested as a temporary option for some businesses. Seven churches – five of which are operating illegally, council officers say – and a dental surgery are also affected; council officers say the surgery has already secured new premises.

While an equalities impact report says the development would have an impact on African, Middle Eastern, Muslim and Hindu communities, people with disabilities and the under-24s, the council says it has secured schemes to mitigate against this including allowing some businesses to move back in to smaller unites, the provision of cheaper workspaces and ongoing support for affected businesses.

Woolwich Public Market has been in a poor condition for many years Credit: The Greenwich Wire

Earlier this month the same planning board rejected plans for 595 rented homes in blocks of up to 22 storeys on nearby Macbean Street, on the grounds of height, density and a low level of “affordable” housing – here just 20 per cent.

Similar criticism could be levelled at Woolwich Exchange, although it does offer more homes for London Affordable Rent – 14 per cent – than Macbean Street, which offered a complex range of discounts instead of teaming up with a housing association to offer homes under that banner.

Council officers say that the new scheme could create up to 254 new jobs on top of the number already working in the area. There were 188 representations of support, and 29 objections.

Objectors include the Woolwich and District Antiquarian Society, a long-established yet low-profile local heritage group, which complained about the loss of buildings on Plumstead Road and said that the new towers “will render eastern Woolwich a new Anytown”. Save Britain’s Heritage also objected on similar grounds.

Woolwich Exchange render
A view from the Arsenal gates as seen in the report to councillors

Speak Out Woolwich, a local lobby group, agreed that the towers were too high, pointed out the lack of London Affordable Rent housing, and questioned whether local businesses in the block would be allowed to stay.

Council officers say that both they and City Hall agree that the developers cannot afford to build any more cheaper housing, and that the developers will build half the “affordable” housing in the first phase of development, along with the revamped covered market.

Woolwich Exchange render
Inside the retained market

Unusually, Greenwich Council’s jobs brokerage will not be the largest beneficiary from Section 106 payments, cash handed over by developers to mitigate their impact on the community. £1.3 million will go to the local NHS to expand healthcare facilities, while another £1.3 million will fund additional school placed.

Greenwich Local Labour and Business will get £500,000. An undisclosed sum is allocated to helping extend Cycleway 4 from the Woolwich Ferry as well as other cycle improvements.

“The affordable housing would include 112 homes at London Affordable Rent and 46 shared ownership homes. While it is acknowledged that this is below 35%, it has been demonstrated to both the council’s independent assessor and the GLA that this is beyond the maximum reasonable amount that could be delivered on this site,” the officers say in their conclusion.

“As such, officers are fully satisfied with the offer and it is considered that the quantum of affordable housing would represent a substantial and important public benefit.

Woolwich Exchange render
The market as seen from Plumstead Road

“The introduction of a number of large buildings to a relatively low-rise site would result in changes to the townscape character. However, in the context of other existing tall buildings in Woolwich particularly those to the north of the site it is not considered to be out of character.

“Overall, the changes would be positive and result in improvements to visual amenity and enhancements to legibility and to the quality of the public realm. These townscape improvements and associated high-quality architecture also constitute public benefits.

“The scheme delivers positive equality impacts for protected characteristics in terms of housing, employment and access. Following the implementation of the relocation strategy, this would mitigate potential adverse impacts for displacement of existing occupiers and residents. In addition, the applicant is proposing further site-specific employment mitigation measures which are to be secured through the Section 106 legal agreement.”

Woolwich Exchange CGI
Another view from Plumstead Road Credit: Woolwich Exchange

Woolwich Exchange has also been backed by Greenwich Council’s leadership – which may have to compulsorily purchase land for the scheme – and began life as Spray Street Quarter, a flagship town hall project with 742 homes. But its first iteration was criticised by Labour councillors during the 2018 election campaign, including Woolwich Common’s Anthony Okereke, now housing cabinet member, who said at a hustings: “I think Spray Street is what happens when you don’t necessarily engage.”

The scheme was reworked and relaunched as Woolwich Exchange following the listing of the market, which was briefly used as a street food venue until it was abandoned by its operator Street Feast two years ago in a row with the council over bungled electrical works.

The original scheme envisaged Street Feast operating the market until its demolition this year – now the old market will host a Picturehouse cinema, bars and restaurants.

Public at Woolwich
Street Feast days: Woolwich Public Market before the street food operator quit

Its main developer St Modwen, has been the subject of a takeover proposal from Blackrock, the world’s biggest private equity firm, best known for paying £650,000 a year to George Osborne to be an advisor for four days each month.

The company had tried for several years to redevelop the Leegate Centre at Lee Green – just across the borough boundary in Lewisham – but recently sold up to Galliard Homes.

The other group involved in the scheme, Notting Hill Genesis, is a housing association.

Councillors on Greenwich’s planning board – its main planning committee – will make a decision on the scheme next Tuesday, in what will be their first in-person meeting for over a year.

If councillors approve the plans, they will need to be rubber-stamped by London mayor Sadiq Khan before work can start in 2023. The mayor’s London Plan says that Woolwich has the potential for at least 5,000 new homes and 2,500 new jobs.

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